January 28, 2014 § 30 Comments
The number forty is highly significant across all traditional faiths and esoteric philosophies. It symbolizes change – coming through a struggle and emerging on the other side more enlightened because of the experience. – Dr. Habib Sadeghi
Usually, I begin my yoga classes with child’s pose or a simple seated meditation, but really, meditation is too strong of a word. We breathe in. We breathe out. And inevitably, a Marine in the back of the class is trying so hard not to laugh out loud that he is silently shaking. Usually, I have to close my own eyes and press my lips together so that I don’t start laughing myself.
It’s always a bit awkward in the beginning when I’m asking them to come into cat cow pose and then downward facing dog. Some people are looking around and vigilance pulls up the chins of others. No one is breathing and you can feel the tension rising off bodies like steam.
Then I ask them to come into plank pose, and like magic, all the giggling stops. After about ten seconds in plank, the vibrations in the room begin to settle. After thirty seconds, the disparate streams of energy begin to gather. After a minute, the quiet comes down like a curtain falling.
I don’t have them hold plank to prove anything, or even to quiet the laughter. There is something so familiar about that pose for Marines and athletes – something almost comforting about being in a high push-up. And yet there is something else about plank that gets right to the heart of our own vulnerability. Maybe it’s that our pelvis wants to collapse in a way that would showcase our weakness. Maybe it’s that plank pose demands us to soften the space behind our hearts. Or maybe it’s the quiet of the pose itself, the stillness required to hold ourselves straight and stare at a single spot on the floor.
After plank pose, it’s different in the room. I can say inhale and 30 sets of lungs breathe in. I can say exhale and 30 sets of lungs breathe out. I can place my hands on someone’s shoulders and they no longer want to flinch.
It was my birthday this week and I have been thinking an awful lot about vulnerability. 41 is a year that lacks the spunk of the thirties but also the dire nature of that four-oh milestone. 41 is not yet old but definitely no longer young. 41 is a bit like jumping into the shallow end of a freezing cold pool and hopping up and down, your arms over your head. 41 is about being in it but just barely. It’s about stopping by the mirror and knowing that you still look much the same as you did at 20, but undeniably, your skin is thinner and creased. What is left may look the same, but it’s only a veneer of who you used to be, and soon that will be gone too, and the true self – the real face that reveals our own creased and softened souls – will emerge.
41 feels a lot like being in plank pose.
Most of my fortieth year was spent on my back, staring up at the clouds that seemed to be rushing by too quickly. Last winter, I woke up in the cold sweat of panic attacks and during this past summer, I couldn’t sleep. 40 required waking up to the fact that I was living in a way that was not sustainable, that I couldn’t forego rest anymore in the name of getting things done, that I needed to stop saying yes when I meant no, and that I desperately wanted to stop asking for permission. Chocolate and wine were no longer staving off that terrifying feeling of fragility, and the warning hum underneath was becoming so loud I felt a little crazy. Last year, a line from Hamlet wove its way into my days: I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
For 39 years, what I wanted more than anything was to be tough. I would rather be angry later than vulnerable now. It’s easier to be the master of my own fate than to place it into someone else’s palm and close their fingers around those thin shards of glass. I had thought that toughness would scare the fear away. But it turns out that fear stays anyway and makes you want to giggle. It makes you want to yell or run or it wakes you up in the middle of the night and squeezes at your heart.
People talk about vulnerability now as this great thing and I suppose it is. But what they don’t often tell you is that one part of vulnerability is to take a good and honest look at yourself, which feels a bit like sticking your head into the mouth of a monster. Asking the questions is only one part of the equation. It’s sitting still with the answers that’s the kicker. There is the way that I think I am in the world, and then there is the way I actually am.
Sometimes I wonder how on earth I became certified to teach yoga. Of all the experiences in my life, teaching renders me the most vulnerable. It feels like taking off my skin. Before each class I feel like Hanuman, when he ripped open his chest to show Ram his devotion. Ram, Ram, Ram beat his heart.
I am working with Rolf Gates on my 500 hour teacher training, and in our last meeting via Skype I shared some of my challenges with teaching, mostly, that I don’t feel I am up to the task. Rolf laughed after I was finished and said,”Welcome to your first ten years teaching yoga,” which I found oddly comforting. He could have easily been saying, Welcome to your forties. And then he told me that teaching is like pointing at the moon. What’s important, he said, is that our students understand the moon.
The way I see it, there is no way to understand the moon without first standing alone in the dark. There is no way to understand anything unless you pay attention to the way it waxes and wanes, to the way it turns its back to you or slips behind a cloud. The glow and the radiance: it’s only a fraction of what it really is.
About three years ago, I wrote that I felt as if I was on the precipice of something, but couldn’t see far enough down to know what it was. Now, I see that what I was gazing into was the mysterious space that houses our hearts. That my task is to simply crouch in the doorway and pay attention to the storm, to the call of the wind and the violent lashing of the branches. My job at 41 is to sit in the eye of the hurricane, rip open my heart, and listen.
June 11, 2012 § 21 Comments
“No Meg, don’t hope it was a dream. I don’t understand it any more than you do, but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be.” – from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.
Jacksonville feels like a stain. It looks as dirty and tired as a bar after last call. We are staying in an extended stay hotel on Western Boulevard, the main business route, which is an aggregate of Old Navys and Olive Gardens, Walmarts and Wendy’s. The air smells like fried chicken and cigarette smoke and the sunlight bounces off all that asphalt. At night, shadowy packs of boys walk along the strip, their jeans low on their hips. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store and a man in a wife beater and flip flops leered at me. He parked his cart by the shelves of raw chicken thighs and made comments at women who walked by him. I turned sharply into the aisle with the detergent and held a box of Downey sheets up to my nose wondering how I ever could have complained about Washington, DC.
We will probably be staying at the Hilton Home2 until the beginning of August, when a house will be available for us on base. On the first floor of the hotel, a fitness center with a television is adjacent to a laundry room. Twice, I let the boys watch Disney Junior while I used the elliptical machine and slipped quarters into the washing machine. On Thursday, I struck up a conversation with another mother of two boys who is staying at the hotel because her house burned down last month. Marines in camouflage come out of other rooms on our floor, and from behind closed doors, I hear Southern accents and babies crying. I smell food being microwaved and Ramen noodles cooking. The night we arrived here, I had a quiet meltdown – conscious of the thin walls and my sleeping boys – thinking that at 39, I am too old to be living in a place that smells like someone else’s dinner. What was the point of the college degrees and all that striving? I thought back to another hotel room eight years ago in San Francisco. I was up all night helping the president of my company write her presentation and at five in the morning, I staggered off to Kinkos with it, thinking that finally, I was on my way. I would never in a million years have believed that I was on my way here to a town overflowing with soldiers.
Each place I have lived during the last six years has taught me something. In Philadelphia, Oliver was born, ironically, two hours from the town I drove 3000 miles away from when I was 21. In San Diego, I learned how to be an adult, a mother, and a wife. In Ventura, I was taught how to trust my heart and to believe in goodness. Washington DC taught me how to be alone and then how to be with people. I spent a year with this guy:
And despite being so lonely for my first year there, things like this began to happen:
Tonight I went for a walk along Western Boulevard, a four-lane highway with sidewalks but no crosswalks. After a while, my walk began to feel like a game of chicken with the pickup trucks and I started back to the hotel. I passed by Ruby Tuesday and the House of Pain tattoo parlor, Food Lion, and a dilapidated barber shop. Even though it was nine at night, a couple with a small child was going into Hooters. I wondered briefly if I should be afraid and then decided I shouldn’t. I figured I could outrun an attacker, and if I couldn’t, I would put up a good fight.
Coming towards me was a group of young Marines. Maybe I wasn’t as different from them as I thought. I too am the kind of person who would fight to the death to protect myself, and as they approached, I realized I am ashamed of this. The boys looked so innocent as they walked by me, so young. I wondered if they signed up to serve and protect and if they were surprised when they found out what was asked of them. Or maybe they weren’t. When I looked up, one of them said hello with a smile that lit up his face. And then they all looked at me for an instant, their faces lovely with youth.
I thought about how complicated it is to serve, how the word protect sometimes also means kill and how much that bothers me. I thought that some of those young boys might be headed off to a war I despise while others might build a school somewhere or save a child. They would all be trained to shoot and a few might have to pull the trigger when it counted. I thought about how much I hate being part of the military, how paying the cashier at the market sometimes feels like handing over blood money. And I thought of how proud I am that my gentle husband is a part of the same organization I hate, because he has watched over his own share of young men with such devotion. How contradictory it is to protect a freedom, how much freedom is taken away to accomplish that, how the choice to serve takes away so many other choices.
And then I thought about the first Power Yoga class I took at Downdog Yoga in Georgetown. For the last six months, that studio has served and protected me, which I never would have thought possible after that initial class, which I wasn’t sure I could even finish. On that morning, last July 4th, as we celebrated freedom, I was trapped in my own thoughts of how thirsty and tired and miserable I was. “I’m so hot,” my mind kept saying. ImsohotImsohotImsohot.
Gradually – and despite my best efforts not to – I fell in love with Power Yoga and began to practice at the Downdog studio four times a week, at least. On my second to last class there only six days ago, Kelly, who was teaching, told us that if we were uncomfortable, then we were in the right place. “That’s what you’ve come for,” she said. “To be uncomfortable and to see what’s underneath.”
As I finished my walk under the streetlights on a sidewalk that was still hot, I felt the same way I did in that first yoga class in Georgetown. I don’t want to know what’s underneath. I don’t want to see how I judge, how I hate, how I break every yogic value I strive for. I want to know why I am here in this strange town near the ocean. I want meaning and reason. I want validation that I am in the right place.
But the night gives me nothing other than the smell of fried chicken and hot concrete, the sound of my own sharp panic and stale discomfort. And maybe this is why I am here: to be uncomfortable. To crack off another layer. To cleanse myself here, in this city that looks toxic and not a single bit lovely in the dark.
December 17, 2011 § 22 Comments
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver
Gopi read us this quote before a yoga class this October during an unseasonable cold snap. I didn’t really want to be a yoga that night as I was fighting a cold and I was feeling tired and maybe a little depressed that already it was beginning to feel like winter. On that October night, Gopi explained that she was in the midst of celebrating the feast Duwali, or the Hindu festival of lights, which involves lighting oil lamps to signify the triumph of good over evil.
I have been wanting to write this post for a while, but in the last few months, my writing has been stuck. Although I started this blog as a way to write freely, my tendency towards perfectionism is even creeping into these hallowed grounds. This morning, I had the humongous pleasure of getting to meet Jena Strong of Bullseye Baby. We went for a run from Old Town (Alexandria) and finished with omelettes at Pain Quotidian. “Just give yourself permission to write and don’t even reread it,” she told me. “Liberate yourself from wanting it to be good.”
Last winter, I decided I wanted to explore my own darkness, which, let me tell you, is not something I advise. It’s like asking for patience. Or tolerance. Ask for those things and you are guaranteed to have a difficult day. And last winter was difficult. The most vivid memory from last winter is of the grey view from my kitchen window as I stood there, waiting for the water to boil, watching the clock crawl from 2:23 to 2:24, hoping that the boys could play together without shrieking before I finished measuring the tea. Last winter was interminable. Picking my way through my own darkness was like turning the knob of a closet that hadn’t been opened in 38 years. It wasn’t pretty.
But then again, the monsters that I expected never appeared. I was afraid I would find a nest of beady-eyed rats or a never ending abyss of blackness, but all that was there was dust. There were cobwebs and a view of the world that was no longer accurate. There were old stories and beliefs about myself that had never been true to begin with.
This October, when Gopi read Mary Oliver’s words, I realized that what I had given myself last winter was a gift. When you sweep out the closets, you discover what you packed away in boxes so many years ago. I had to get my hands dirty but it is clear to me now that an excavation took place. What I discovered last winter was that the darkness in my life was of my own making, and if it was of my own making, it could be of my own dismantling as well.
I wish I could say that what rushed in to fill the void darkness left was golden light thick as honey, but that was not the case. Instead, what stood in the closet of my heart was emptiness. Space. A clean sense of nothing, which turned out to be as scary as the blackness.
This October, I suffered from a rather acute case of anxiety, strong enough that Scott gently suggested I go to the doctor. Instead, I called up Laura Plumb, my former yoga teacher in San Diego and an Ayurvedic practitioner. I told Laura that I constantly felt the need to outrun whatever was chasing me, that I woke up at 4:30 in the morning with a racing heart, that I was afraid of something that had no name.
Laura explained that this was a very autumnal feeling, that October was a season of falling away and of letting go of what not longer serves us.
“It’s clear,” I told her, “That my anxiety is no longer serving me, but I don’t know how to be without it.”
“Well,” Laura said, in her voice, which always reminds me of bells ringing, “We can let go and know there doesn’t need to be the next thing yet. We can stand in our own emptiness.”
I get through each day by trying hard: to be a good mother, to keep the house clean, to keep up my spiritual practice, to nurture those around me. It’s as though I believe that things happen because I exert enough force. It’s as though I believe if I worry enough, the disasters will stay away. My anxiety is my talisman, warding away the suckerpunch that will inevitably happen as soon as I let my guard down.
I don’t know how to stand in my own emptiness. My existential fear of emptiness is perhaps what underlies all of my fears: If I let go, the next thing will never come. If I stand still, I will be left behind.
Laura reminded me of the trees. “They lose all their leaves,” she told me, “They stand bare all winter and trust that spring will come.”
This winter, I have no need to explore the darkness. This winter, I am standing in what Hemingway called, “the clean well-lighted place” (there are shadows of the leaves). I am going to practice trusting that the next thing will come: that the next word will appear, that the next idea will organically arise, that the earth will keep spinning even though I have stopped swatting at it with my hand. This winter I am lighting a clay lamp and admiring how clean the emptiness is, how ready it is for something beautiful. This winter, I will see what it means to belong to myself completely and have faith in my own human heart. In the words of Jena, I am liberating myself from wanting it to be good, I am liberating myself from wanting it to be anything other than what it is: this barren landscape, these empty trees, this waiting space.
As an aside I just want to mention what a fabulous time it was to meet Jena, whom I have only previously known here, in this alternative online universe. She emailed me yesterday to ask if I could bring an extra fleece for her to run in as she packed light. When she rummaged through the bag of clothes I brought for her this morning, she said, “Ooohh, I LOVE your wardrobe.” Ahhh, I thought, someone who appreciates my workout clothes: the jewels of my closet. We had such a fun run on this cold grey day, where the sun barely made it over the hills, except for one slim ray that pierced the Potomac. We had such a luxuriously long breakfast and I learned so much from this beautiful, wise woman. At Pain Quotidian, we ran into someone I know from the yoga studio and he assumed we were old college buds. This warmed my heart. Because while my tenure in DC has been lonely, this space here has been rich. To know that the people I meet here translate into friends in real life is the best Christmas gift I could receive. I am so grateful to this space and to my new, real-life friend Jena. Check out her blog at Bullseye Baby.
November 22, 2011 § 23 Comments
For weeks I have been trying to write just one single post. I have filled up WordPress windows, Word documents, and notebook pages and still have nothing to show for it. A few days ago I threw in the towel and focused on other things. Right now, in addition to working towards my 200 hour yoga teaching certification, I am taking Rolf Gates’ online “The Chakras as Life’s Roadmap,” which has opened my life up in ways I didn’t believe an online course could do.
Last week, we were talking about the heart chakra and since then, I have been aware of the ways I refuse to commit to both myself and my spiritual practice. I have integrity, but only until my breaking point. I love but only until it becomes too difficult. I give, but only to people I believe are deserving. I have committed to yoga, but only up to my edge and no further.
My response to this observation was to exercise more. Last week I ran more miles than I have in months. I went to the yoga studio four times, including to a hot power yoga class, which I swear would have turned Baron Baptiste himself into a whimpering puddle of sweat. On Saturday, when I was so sore I could barely walk, I realized that this body of mine, the one I have vilified for so long is truly my greatest teacher. Maybe that is why this chakra class is so powerful for me because the physical realm is the world in which I learn the most. Make me sprint for five kilometers and I will finally tell you what is bothering me. Tell me to hold Warrior II for two minutes and the bricks I am mortaring around my heart will start to crumble. Push me to my physical edge and I will start to understand my emotional edge as well.
On Sunday morning, my quads were still as shaky and unresponsive as they were the previous afternoon and I was seriously reconsidering the trail race I had signed up for that morning. A few months ago I signed up for the entire five-mile Backyard Burn Trail Running series because they are fun and I love running in the woods, but on Sunday, the prospect of dodging tree roots and sloshing through streams sounded about as pleasant as another power yoga class. “Just do it for fun,” Scott told me and I glared at him.
I ended up going, mostly because Scott told me to. I drove the thirty minutes out to Fountainhead Regional Park although I wasn’t sure why. I was too tired to push myself, to do my best, and I didn’t know any other way to approach a race. Why show up if I wasn’t going to show up fully? Why race if I didn’t want to win?
I started in the back of the pack this time, unlike the day in October when I sprained my ankle. When the air horn blew announcing the start of the race, I was surrounded by men in bandanas who looked like former football players and women who carried small bottles of Evian and asked if it was okay to walk part of the course. As we headed up the road towards the woods, we began to fall in line in preparation for the trail. As the road turned into a rocky, root-studded single track, we were running single file, in silence. I listened to the sound of our feet thudding against the ground, and a feeling came over me, so strongly that I wanted to lie down and rest my head against a bed of moss. Instead, I struggled for a word that would describe what this was, this endless line of bodies heading into the woods for no other reason than because they said they would.
No, I thought, pushing that word away. This snaking line of runners wearing breathable fabrics was nothing like the processions of my youth in St. Columba Church. This colorful parade moving toward the finish line was nothing like the solemn walk to the alter to receive a stale wafer. And yet, what were we doing if not moving toward something sacred? What was this if not an agreement to meet somewhere together and pray? I haven’t been to Mass in years, but a vague passage from the Gospel of Matthew popped into my head: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The race was put on my Ex2, a fabulous group of people, who had even come out the day before the race to blow the leaves from the single-track trail so we wouldn’t kill ourselves on the roots or the precipitously steep downhills that seemed to be made solely of rock and moss. As I ran and listened to our breathing and our footfalls, I noticed another, occasional sound of someone swishing through the leaves on the side of the trail.
Swish, swish, swish.
“On your left.”
“Go for it.”
What I began to notice was that the swishings were never isolated. Someone would pass someone and almost immediately after, someone else would enter the leaves. Then another. A runner about five people ahead of me passed someone and I felt the need to pass the person ahead of me.
Swish, swish, swish.
“Passing on the right.”
Instead of being competitive, it was lovely. Here, we were saying to each other, I’ll take over for a while. It was so small this sound, this decision to leave the trail and enter into something new, but it was powerful. It inspired people. As I ran, Big Little Wolf’s recent post popped into my head. Her post from the day before inspired me with her adament support of Ashley Quiñones, who, at 31 needs a new kidney in order to live for another decade. Medicaid – Ashley’s only insurer – will not fund the necessary surgery, which is estimated at $250,000.
“I think most people have good hearts,” Big Little Wolf said in an email to me, which I read just an hour before the race. “The world is just so damned overwhelming, we don’t know what to do, how to help. So – one at a time, right?”
One at a time we jump into the leaves. One at a time we run through the woods. One at a time, we cross the finish line.
Right before the finish line, as I came out of the woods, I saw Scott and the boys, sitting in the grass and I was so thrilled to see my tribe that I felt lit up inside. Oliver shyly clapped and Gus was smacking his hands together so hard I worried about his little palms. Scott took a photo of me (see above) and while I usually hate every picture taken of myself, I kept this one because I remember what that was like, to come out of the woods and see this overwhelming, overflowing, heartbreaking love.
Most times, right after the race I take off before the awards ceremony because I have better things to do than stand around and see if I won a pint glass. Scott has won so many in his mountain bike races that they keep falling out of our cabinets. On Sunday though, after Scott told me I won my age group, the boys wanted to stay and go up to the podium with me. Right after that, the race director announced that they were going to give away iPODs and two, hundred dollar bills. Scott, who knows I never win anything, got the boys ready for a mountain bike ride in the woods, and I think I surprised him my telling him I was staying for the giveaway. “I’m feeling lucky,” I told him. “And I never feel lucky.”
Ten minutes later, when my name was called out as the winner of a crisp, new, hundred-dollar bill, I was not surprised. “You’re so calm,” Jim, the race director told me. “You’re so quiet.”
Instead of telling Jim I knew I was going to win, I smiled and said thank you and took the money.
Big Little Wolf asked us to come up with a five-year plan in honor of Ashley but I don’t do five-year plans anymore. I used to live according to plans and training schedules and goals, but then I married someone in the Navy and started moving every eighteen months to two years. I learned to let go of plans. My five-year plan is for my family to still be alive and healthy and as happy as we are now. My five-year plan is to not to plan but to live in the moment.
So, instead of a plan, Ashley can have my $100 dollar bill. For why else did I win it, me, who has never even won a game of bingo?
For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
Swish, swish, swish. Passing on the right.
Please take a moment and visit Big Little Wolf to learn about the important work she is doing to help raise money for a life-saving kidney transplant for Ashley Quiñones, aka the Kidney Cutie, aka the sister of Kelly Miller of The Miller Mix.
September 15, 2011 § 23 Comments
In my world, I’m standing just inside the door.
In my world, I’m speaking, to the ocean’s roar.
Jackson Browne, “Time the Conqueror.”
The beginning of September has flattened me. Literally. I am lying on the floor in pigeon pose and my yoga teacher, Gopi, is sitting on top of me, shouting at me in her British/Indian accent. “Thassit gurl. Get in thair.” She sticks her elbow into my butt and I see stars. It takes all I have inside me not to cry. That’s how everything has been lately; on top of me, all sharp elbows and painful edges.
I like to write blog posts when I have something figured out, at least to some degree. Right now, I have nothing figured out. Right now, I feel like I am wearing clothes that are both too big and too tight. It’s been weeks since I have written anything at all.
Gopi is talking about change, which is obvious now in the weather and the red tinge on the leaves that hang over our living room window. Yesterday it was ninety-one degrees. Now it is fifty-one. After I picked Oliver up from kindergarten at noon today, I took the boys to the park to ride their bikes in the warm sunshine. This afternoon, at home, we watched the front blow in, cold air on a freight train straight from Canada. I have one east coast winter under my belt after 17 in California, and frankly, I am anxious about doing it again. We had a week of 100 degree temperatures in May and three in June and July. August was hot too. Until now, winter has seemed so far away. I want it to stay away. And I want it to be here already so I can stop worrying about it.
“What in your life,” Gopi asks, ” Is the catalyst for a heart revolution?”
On Labor Day weekend, the week before school started, Scott and I flew back to northern California for a wedding. We saw friends in Marin, San Francisco and on the Sonoma coast. We had pizza in Berkeley with my friend Stephanie and I got to hold her gorgeous 7-week old baby. We drank too much red wine with Scott’s friends from college in a house overlooking the Pacific. We went to my friend Michelle’s wedding and spent the whole time with my friend Loren and her wife Audra. Stephanie and Loren and Michelle were my cross-country and track teammates in college. They know me so well, even now, and I miss them. I miss what it was like to be together every day. I miss that.
The trip back from California to DC was hard – it always is. Something happens to me when I fly eastward over the Mississippi River. I contract. I become the smallest version of myself packed into the tightest bundle. I protect myself from what is inevitably coming. I try to ward off what has already happened.
Last weekend, during my yoga teacher training, something shifted and we all started to get it. Instead of sitting there, feeling confused, I felt close. I felt connected. Rolf talked a bit about our contracted states of fear, aversion, and jealousy. He said that when we move beyond our contracted states, we will realize that we needed each of them in order to arrive at this new, expansive place.
Tonight, Gopi is hell-bent on opening our hips. We do some crazy thing with our legs behind our heads. I am close, but my leg gets stuck somewhere by my pony tail and I can’t get it under. We do some other terrifying move to open our hip flexors where only my left heel and the top of my right foot remain on the floor. Gopi makes us chant three Om’s while we hold that pose. “Whatever you ease into eases up,” she tells us. In that moment, I hate yoga.
For a long time now, I have felt as if I were on the precipice of something: transformation, change, growth. I don’t know. It’s nothing big, nothing earth shaking. Just something new. But I can’t quite get there. It gets stopped, somewhere in my head. I get stuck, just inside the door.
Oliver started school last Thursday, during the rains that didn’t stop. We stayed inside all week, and it felt like winter. Oliver doesn’t like transitions so much. Like me, he tries to protect himself from what has already happened. Since school started, it’s been one meltdown after another. It would be one thing if he walked in the door, threw down his blue race car backpack, and began to wail. Instead, it’s more diffuse. Yesterday, he flung himself on the ground because I reversed the bath/dinner schedule. The day before, he stomped out of the room because I got him a new toothbrush. “I won’t brush my teeth!” he yelled at Scott, “until I have a toothbrush with batteries in it.”
Tonight in class I think about what in my life might be a catalyst for a heart revolution. Maybe it’s my yoga teacher training. Or maybe it’s Oliver’s tantrums. Stay, I tell myself during the heart of them. Breathe. Sometimes I can. And sometimes I can’t.
Next, Gopi has us doing heart opening poses. Our arms are entwined behind our backs and we bow forward into the geometry of devotion. Please, I think as my heart moves towards the floor. Please.
Last Sunday, I set an intention to keep my heart open, to stay in the moment and hold space for Oliver’s transition. What happens is what always happens when I finally act like the grown up and do what I am supposed to do. Oliver stops yelling and starts crying. He asks for a hug with both arms. We bypass anger and move straight to the heart of his anxiety. What also happens is that I become exhausted from all that life being hurled straight at me. When I become a wellspring to my son, I become a drought to myself. I wonder if there is a way to bring the two together, to nourish both of us at the same time.
In our teacher training, Rolf told us to be the thing we loved. What would happen if I could remember the word devotion? What if I could become that?
Later in class, we do Hanumanasana or seated splits with one leg straight out in front. The pose is named after the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, who devotes his life to the god Rama. When the demon king who presides over Sri Lanka abducts Rama’s wife, Sita, Hanuman and Rama travel from India to Sri Lanka to rescue her. During the battle there, Rama’s brother becomes wounded and to live, he requires an herb that only grows in the Himalayas.
Hanuman so loves Rama that he says he will accomplish this impossible task. With one foot still in Sri Lanka, he stretches himself all the way back to India. He can’t find the herb, so he lifts up the entire mountain and carries it back to Sri Lanka, where Rama’s brother is saved. Hanumanasana embodies Hanuman’s devotion, each leg in a different country, arms high in the air, carrying a mountain.
I can never get into this pose all the way. Mostly I just hover, uncomfortably, suspended a few inches off the ground, my hands on the floor.
On Labor Day, on the way home from the wedding, I bought Gail Caldwell’s book, Let’s Take the Long Way Home in the San Francisco airport. The book is about Caldwell’s experience of losing her best friend – Caroline Knapp, another of my favorite writers – to breast cancer at the age of 42. In the book, Caldwell writes, “I was in the corridor of something far larger than I, and I just had to stand it and stay where I was.”
Tonight, I go into Hanumanasana the way I always do: I squeeze my front thigh and flex my front foot. I walk the toes on the other leg back until they can’t go any further. Tonight I do this until I feel something under my front hamstring. It takes a split second until I realize that what is directly under my leg is the floor, which has miraculously risen up to meet me.
“Yes!” I think to myself. “Yes!” and then I am instantly humbled. I have been practicing yoga consistently since I was pregnant with Oliver. It has taken me more than six years to come into the shape of this pose.
At the park today, watching Oliver ride around like a crazy person on his bike, I found myself wondering how many weeks it would take until he feels more settled at school. Maybe next week. Maybe never.
I keep wondering when I am going to get there: back to California, my leg over my head, the end of winter, the end of tantrums, and of course what I really want, which is to become a more spiritual person. I thought if I did a lot of yoga, it would happen on its own. There is something to that of course, but it’s not that easy. It requires a bit more stretching than that. It takes a long time, sometimes, to get around these big corners. There’s a lot of hanging out, suspended over the ground, feet in two different countries. It might be that I never get there, that this is all there is, right now: waiting and staying and standing it.
August 22, 2011 § 11 Comments
Wild. I have been somewhat obsessed with this word lately. Maybe it’s because our own summer is a little wild with most of our days spent outside and the two boys growing like wild flowers. Today, Oliver asked if I had put Gus’ clothes in his drawer because they were all too small for him. I stared at Oliver in his too-small shorts. “No,” I said. “Those are yours.” Were yours. Were: that is the word that is used most often when you are a parent. Once you were my baby. Now you are my boy.
Wild is also this month’s Jivamukti yoga theme. The way Jiva classes work is that each month, the teachers design their classes around a universal theme. What’s interesting is to see how each teacher explores this theme differently. Or, to see how a teacher evolves her classes during the month. My favorite teacher, Kathy, started out this month teaching an uninhibited class. She played “Wild Wild West” and had her students dance. When I took her class last week, she admitted she was tired of that. “I’ve been thinking about wild animals,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about how sensitive and still they are. How they listen.” The class she gave that day focused on listening – to ourselves, to each other, to the world. “In nature,” she said, while we were in pigeon pose, “One bird begins to fly and they all follow. One giraffe begins to run and they all organize around that single moment. They all act as one because they know all is one.”
I have been thinking about my own wild self, about how I haven’t paid very much attention to it. “Shh,” I always say. “Be quiet.” Perhaps, I am worried that if I listen, I will become so completely out of control that my life will become unmanageable. Perhaps, I believe that my wild self cannot be trusted.
In my late teens and twenties, I suffered from pretty much every eating disorder that has ever been diagnosed. It’s not something I really want to write about, but as I get older, I realize that of the thousands of women I have met, maybe three have been immune from eating disorders. Food seems to be the universal sword by which we women wage war upon ourselves. “I am not enough,” is what we are really saying when we eat too little or too much. I am so useless and unworthy that I don’t deserve to eat. Or, I am so worthless, I need to be filled with something other than myself. It’s all the same thing: We don’t believe we deserve to be here. We don’t believe we can be trusted.
This Saturday, I took Jivamukti from Hari (or “Uncle Hari” as he is affectionately named). Hari talked about wild. He talked about our relentlessly wild minds. He talked about the chaos that ensues when do whatever we want. He talked about the beauty of rules to tame our wildness. Specifically he spoke about the Yoga Sutras, about the Yamas of Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), and Brahmacarya (moderation). He talked about how within those rules, we can experience great freedom and how sometimes, it is the rules themselves that enable us to be truly wild. His words reminded me of what Shakespeare once wrote about the sonnet, that it was because of their strict structure that he could come up with such lyric poetry.
On Sunday, when Scott went out for a morning bike ride and threw his ClifShot wrapper away, he discovered a raccoon in our trash can. All I know is, it’s good he found it and not me. Nothing fills me with fear more than small North American mammals and rodents. And a raccoon looks like both of these combined.
“Anyone want to come help me get the raccoon out of the trash can?” Scott asked when he came home.
Oliver and I both shook our heads.
“I’ll go!” Gus called and followed his dad outside in his bare feet.
Oliver and I stood inside by the window and watched as Scott maneuvered the trash can and leaned it on its side, away from the house. Gus came dancing in a few seconds later, he eyes bright. He held out his arms. “The raccoon was this big!” he said.
There seems to be this balance in dealing with our own wild minds, and it’s one I haven’t quite figured out yet. On one hand, if we let ourselves go completely, life becomes crazy. We can’t parent our children or successfully sustain any type of relationship. On the other hand, if we force too many rules upon ourselves, we end up hiding out somewhere in the dark, eating trash. The raccoon reminded me of what Anne Lamott once said about her own thoughts: “My mind remains a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone.” It reminded me of what Rolf Gates says about compassion: “Starving people eat garbage. And sometimes we are those starving people.”
After a month of “Wild” Jivamukti, I am no closer to understanding the term. I think of wild horses and snow-capped mountains and wild geese landing on a lake during my friend’s beautiful wedding. I think of children who crave rules and structure and a rhythm to flow into. I think of myself as I approach the age of 40, which is undoubtably the beginning of middle age. I think of the lack of rules and structure and rhythm we have for midlife unless it is the sting of a Botox needle or the sound of a wine bottle opening or the pain of a breakdown.
But there has to be more than this, right? RIGHT???
When I was young, my father listened to Joseph Campbell’s audiotapes while we were in the car, which now, I am grateful for. Somewhere in my brain are the transcripts to all of those tapes. In my mind, I can hear Campbell talking about the importance of ritual and how our current society is sorely lacking, especially in adolescence.
He didn’t speak about middle age that I remember, but that period of life is most certainly lacking in ritual as well. I knew how to be wild in my twenties. I know how to be wild with and about my children now that I am in my thirties. But how am I supposed to be wild in my forties? How do I know which voice to listen to? Is it the one who tells me follow the rules or is it the one who tells me to abandon them and carve my own path.
Luckily for me, as these things go, I received a message, just when I needed it. It was from someone I do not yet know who read my “Heart” post. She shared the following poem she wrote when her own child was a toddler, and in her poem, I found that harmonious balance between our wild nature and our civilized selves. I found that connection with another soul, which I am thinking may be the only ritual that counts for anything.
What could be a better symbol of the relationship between savage and civilized than our own wild hearts beating in their cages of bone?
Thank you Holly.
In the dawn of my awakening
I reach over
and put my hand
over the soft skin of her small chest
over her tiny heart
I feel it beat with strength, with rhythmic determination
that same tiny heart that beat inside my belly not so long ago
that beats faster while she pedals her two-wheeler
that same growing heart
that closes a little more with each life lesson learned
Eckhart Tolle tells us to be quiet, to be still
to open to the extraordinary moments, that define presence
that life really is beyond our senses, beyond our consciousness
and that she and I, you and I
are really one
So be quiet, be still –
listen and feel the beating of her heart,
my heart, your own heart
the pulse of the universe
and the voice of God
-Holly Brook Cotton 7/24/08
August 9, 2011 § 14 Comments
I’ve long believed that what has kept writers, again myself included, from fully transcending their personal experiences on the page was fear of incompetence: I can’t write a plot that involves a kidnapping because I’ve never been kidnapped, etc. But what if it’s the opposite? What if the reason we find it so difficult to cleave our fiction from our experience, the reason we’re so loath to engage our imaginations and let the story rise above the ground floor of truth isn’t that we’re afraid we’ll do the job poorly, but that we’re afraid we’ll do it too well? … Maybe we’re afraid that if we write what we don’t know, we’ll discover something truer than anything our real lives will ever yield.
- from “Don’t Write What You Know,” by Bret Anthony Johnston, the Atlantic Fiction 2011
I read these words while I was sitting outside the Lodge at Black Butte Ranch in Sisters, Oregon. We were there for two days for a dear friend’s wedding while the boys were three hours away at their grandparents’ house. We have never left them for that long before and after 12 hours of sadness and a bit of anxiety, I came to a place of peace. I came to the realization that they were having a blast.
Sitting there, looking up at those snow capped mountains, I also came to a place of homecoming. I came to another realization that even though I spent half my life on the east coast, it’s never been home to me the way the west is, where I’ve spent the other half of my life. I’ve been working so hard to make Virginia home, but that experience has been like walking with my head down, gazing at the cracks in the sidewalk. Virginia is just the ground floor of truth and trying too hard to love it is like trying to force a square peg in a round hole. It’s been like trying to deny my own discreet and infinite hunger.
But of course this is not about Virginia, is it? What I’m really talking about is my own tendency to try to drink from a block of clay rather than molding it into a bowl that can hold water.
This quote pertains directly to my own experience of writing fiction, of writing 50 pages and then being stopped by the paralyzing fear of being incompetent. And it also pertains directly to my own experience of living, of being afraid to dream, to rise past the ground floor of truth because I am afraid I will do it too well. That the world I envision for myself may be too lovely for someone like myself to inhabit. That to abide in the world I long for means making myself open to disaster. That sometimes, being available to beauty is the most terrifying thing there is.
May 19, 2011 § 12 Comments
Usually after I pick Oliver up from school at noon, I take the boys to a park down the street. It’s a great park with two play structures, a big baseball diamond, and trails that loop down to the neighborhood below. They are perfect trails for kids because while they end at busy sidewalks, the short trails themselves are overgrown and a little dark. “Did you know that this is a rain forest?” one of Oliver’s friends asked me a week ago when he came with us on our walk. “Lions live down here.” Together Oliver and his friend walked over a tree that had fallen across a shallow ravine, and for a few minutes, they sat there, their legs straddling the tree as if they were on horses, talking about whatever five-year old boys talk about.
But on Tuesday, the boys and I were alone. We had the park to ourselves and went down the trails that now smelled of summer. It had been raining and was so humid that white spots of mold covered the ground. There was the delicate scent of honeysuckle. There was the sweet stink of dead animal. The boys ran on ahead, Oliver stumbling on legs that have suddenly grown too long, and Gus following steadily behind on his sturdy calves.
I wanted to love this moment. But I was too exhausted. I was swatting mosquitoes. I was worried that a muskrat-like animal would pop out in front of us. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by all I had taken on lately. Mostly I was annoyed at myself. For the two years I lived in Ventura, I learned how to simplify, how to pare back and slow down. And in just one year in DC, I have learned to spread myself back out, to sign up for too much, and say no to too little. Lindsey recently wrote about how there sometimes isn’t enough of her to go around, and that was exactly how I felt on Tuesday. Like I was having endurance issues. Like parenting was just one more thing that I had to cross off the list.
Just then, Oliver raced by me on the trail, his arms outstretched in front of him and his palms pressed together. He was making engine noises and weaving back and forth. ZZZooom. BBBrrrooom. I knew he was pretending to be in a space ship, but really, he looked like a very short pilgrim racing to Mecca. It looked like he was praying. Oh my God, I thought, feeling a chill go through me, which happens whenever the boys share a secret from their world. The hairs on my arms stood up, because frankly, these frequent instances seem more than just coincidences. Their connection with Spirit is almost too strong to bear.
I placed my own palms together at my heart, the way I do during a yoga class, and inside my chest, a door swung open. Why didn’t I do this more often? Why didn’t I pray?
Sure, I sometimes said a prayer when I was desperate, something along the lines of “Please God let that hair I just plucked out of my chin be a one-time fluke.” Or “Thank you God for Gus not screaming anymore.” Or “Please God let no one make a comment that my kids are eating pb&j again.” But these aren’t prayers. They are desperate pleas. Negotiations. The only time I pray is when I am on my yoga mat. I hardly ever pray when I really need it.
The boys stopped ahead of me in a clearing. Down below I could see a sidewalk and a street full of houses, but the boys thought we were in the middle of nowhere, on some great Tuesday safari, full of adventure. I kept my palms together over my heart and felt my Catholic childhood melt into my yoga practice. Namaste. In the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit. I thought of the metta meditation, which I have seen everywhere lately: May I be protected and safe. May I be peaceful and free. May I be healthy and strong. May my life unfold with ease.
The boys were still running around with their arms outstretched. I pulled out my phone. “Hey Oliver,” I said, “Can I take a picture of your hands?” He stopped for a second and waited until I held up my camera phone. After I took the picture, he started running again. “We’re in a rocket ship Mommy,” he yelled as he and Gus ran circles around the clearing. His hands were still pressed together and he raised them to the sky. “Do you see Mommy?” he called. “This is how I steer.”
I held my hands, also in prayer, up to the sky. Maybe I should start steering this way too.
April 8, 2011 § 10 Comments
This afternoon, after Gus was down for a nap, Oliver tiptoed into my room. “Mommy,” he whispered. “Do you want to play Mr. Dealership now?”
“Of course!” I whispered back and he grinned and hurried down the stairs to the playroom. Mr. Dealership has become our new game and often this time is the highlight of my day. I don’t have much time alone with Oliver, so Gus’ naptime is kind of like a standing date for us. Today I went down to the corner of the playroom, where my “dealership” is. I sat with the basket of clean laundry that needed to be folded while Oliver loaded up his car carrier with Matchboxes and drove them over to me. “Mr. Dealer Manager?” he asked me, “Do you need some monster trucks?”
“Absolutely,” I said in my best used car salesman voice. “And some car parts too.”
The “car parts” were just Gus’ alphabet blocks that also got loaded up on the truck. Oliver used a Lego front loader truck to hand them off to me. “Here’s a C box,” he said. “That’s the carburetors. And here’s an M box. Wait, it’s a W box. Hey, it’s an M and a W. Cool.”
That’s what I love about kids. They are so open. Their wonderful beginner’s minds are so full of awe. To me, an M is never a W. It is only an M. A man is never a woman. A McDonalds is never a Wendy’s. A malasana is never a warrior II. When I start something new, I don’t think of it as cool. I think of it as hard. I think of it as strange and difficult. My own beginner’s mind forgets that it’s a beginner’s mind. It thinks it should know everything already, even as all around me, the world is made new again.
Obviously, spring is the season to flower and take flight. For me anyway, this spring is about taking risks as surely as this winter was about embracing the darkness. Taking risks. Letting go. Oh, there is so much I can let go of: the stories I tell myself, my tight grip on every minute of my day, my fear.
Today, Oliver reminded me of another spring 20 years ago when I was a sophomore in college. That year I qualified for a spot on the US Cross Country team as a junior, which meant I could run in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships held in Boston that year (1992). A few days before the race, there was a massive snowstorm that buried Franklin Park. The weather stayed in the 20′s and the wind came through the city like a freight train. Still, we showed up to run the course the day before the race, all of us bundled into our US-team GoreTex, sick of the snow and wishing that the race was held in another country, like say, Morocco or Mexico. As we trudged up Bear Cage Hill, we heard a lot of yelling and laughing. Whooping. We came around the corner and there was the Kenyan team, dancing around in their green and red sweats. They bent down to the ground and then pointed at the sky. They laughed and yelled things at each other in Swahili. Runners in general are a pretty neurotic bunch and I wondered if maybe they were doing some good luck ritual.
“Hey,” one of the US runners yelled to the Kenyan team’s American translator. The translator waved back at us. He too was grinning. “Hey,” the US runner yelled again, “What’s going on?” The translator loped over to us, and the US runner asked, “What are they saying?”
The translator looked over at the Kenyan team and then turned back to us and shrugged, his palms up. “They’re not saying anything,” he told us, smiling. “They don’t have a word for snow.”
We all stood, silenced by that. The Kenyan team was still jumping around and laughing, pointing at the snow and touching it, as if it were alive. Sometimes they grabbed each other’s hands and put snow in their teammates’ palms and watched it melt. We watched for a while, until finally, one of the US guys lowered his head and started to run again, up that hill. We all followed, quiet for a while, humbled and in awe. “No word for snow?” someone asked after a few minutes. “Did you see how happy they were?” someone else asked. I felt such a love for those Kenyans then, dancing around with their big joyful hearts.
The next day, on the starting line of the race, it started to sleet. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt under my singlet and my bare legs were slathered with olive oil to stay as warm as possible. Before the race, my college coach screwed 3/4 inch long spikes into my racing flats so I wouldn’t slip on the ice. Next to me was the Kenyan women’s team. They were shivering in their nylon shorts and singlets and their toes bounced up and down on the white snow. They were running barefoot. For most of the race, I followed the bloody footprints they left behind.
Arguably, Kenyans are some of the most efficient distance runners in the world. To them, running is not just sport, it’s culture. It’s transportation. They are masters at running fast for a long, long time, yes, but they are not masters of snow. I would have bet that day in 1992, in Franklin Park in a snowstorm, the Kenyans wouldn’t have run their best. And that would have been OK because after all, they don’t even have a word for snow. And those words are so important, right? Don’t we need the label to define our experience? Don’t we need the story to explain ourselves?
Or maybe we don’t. That day in Franklin Park, the Kenyan teams won every race.
Tonight, as Oliver as going to bed, he looked up at the glow in the dark stars on his ceiling and asked, “Do you know what the brightest star in the night sky is?”
“No,” I said, curious to see what he was going to tell me. “What is it?”
“It’s the nut star,” he said solemnly. “If you get lost, you can follow it.”
Nut star? “Do you mean the North Star?” I almost asked, but I bit my lip. Who cares, I thought, stopping myself. Nut or North. M or W. Scared or brave. Beginner or master. Better than or Worse than. Who cares. I think of the way the Kenyans opened up their hands to that crazy foreign snow. I think about how my son just wants to soak in experience. We’re all just out here dancing in the snow. We’re all running uphill on our bloody feet. We’re all just trying to find our own nut star.
March 26, 2011 § 4 Comments
It rained this week and the temperature dropped from 70 to 40. March: the time of shadows and great shifts. Wind. The boys and I stayed inside during the rainstorms, although as soon as the skies cleared, I bundled them in coats and made them do wind sprints around the traffic circle at the end of our block. It was that kind of week, that kind of preschool boy energy.
What has been on my mind lately is change. How difficult it is for me to drop old habits, old ways of thinking. I wish I could stay in that sacred space for longer than an hour or two. I wish I could stay hooked up to that divine spirit, the place that always feels like home to me. I wish my own personal transformations were as easy as winter turning to spring. But then, I think, even winter doesn’t always turn to spring so gracefully. It’s going to snow tonight and our little garden is covered with tarps and cardboard. Perhaps change – like the seasons – takes two steps forward and a step back.
Today, I decided to let myself off the hook. I decided to let the entire world off the hook for a change. I think of what Claire Dederer wrote in “Poser” about how motherhood became a “Goodness Project” for her. I think of how hard we all try to be good and that maybe, I would have an easier time with change if I learned how to surrender more and try a little less. A few weeks ago, the fields near our house were filled with Canadian Geese on their way north. Those good animals, who without trying at all, fly in perfect formation.
And now, I am going to hand it over to Mary Oliver.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.